Islamic State fighters are not flocking to Southeast Asia following their defeat in Syria and Iraq despite the terror group calling on them to continue the fight in other regions, a top U.S. counterterrorism official says.
“We have seen a few indications of an interest in travelling to Southeast Asia, but truth be told, it’s not one of the regions that ISIS fighters seem to be heading to in droves,” Nathan Sales said in Manila on Nov. 22 reported the South China Morning Post.
“So far we haven’t seen a huge problem, but we have to make sure we keep it that way,” the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department said.
Sales was in Manila as part of efforts by the U.S. to boost cooperation with countries in the region, to prevent people infiltrating across their maritime borders to launch attacks.
However, Sales warned that methods and tactics employed in the Middle East, such as suicide bombings, were being taken up by local and regional group.
“Increasingly, we are seeing terrorist groups such as ISIS [and] al-Qaeda come to rely on regional networks and affiliates around the globe,” according to Sales.
“Suicide bombing is not something that we’ve seen in … Southeast Asia until very, very recently, and we are concerned about groups like ISIS and sympathisers of ISIS emulating what they see in places like Syria and Afghanistan,” he said.
The southern Philippine region of Mindanao is a prime example where the so-called Islamic state (ISIS) could establish a foothold, according to former militants.
It is easily accessible from the sea, is poorly governed in many places and weapons are aplenty there, they say.
The region has also endured decades of insurgency from large groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliated group, set up training camp in the region back in the 1990s before returning to Indonesia to launch attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
“Mindanao is the closest jihad zone for Malaysian and Indonesians and the most economically viable for them to travel to,” said one of the group’s former leaders Nasir Abas, who established a training camp on Mindanao called Camp Hudaibiyah.
In 2017, ISIS affiliates tried to gain a foothold in Mindanao when the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute Group attacked the city of Marawi and withstood a five-month siege before being defeated by government troops. The siege killed more than 1,000 people.
The claim followed an attack on a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, in the Philippine province of Sulu in January.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up killing 20 people.